Right off the bat, I want to say that "Chinglish" had all the elements that make a great play for me: clever premise, intriguing story, great cast, amazing sets, creative staging, the right seasoning of laughter and drama....in short, I loved it. I can understand why it was named to the Time Magazine list of Top 10 Plays and Musicals for 2011; and it was in good company with "War Horse" and "The Normal Heart," two of my very favorite shows for this season. Even that wasn't enough to save it; it is closing early after hitting only 36% attendance one week and relying heavily on discounted ticket prices. Why? Well, now I've seen it and I can say I truly don't know.
The playwright is best known for M. Butterfly...no slouch, that one. The audience got the jokes, laughed heartily and appeared to really appreciate the talented cast. But it didn't get a standing ovation, even from me, and I'm a veritable jumping jack for shows I love. So, again, I don't know what was missing. I'll hazard a guess and say that it might be that the wonderful female lead, who is the one Chinese character who approaches a good understanding of English, was a bit tough to understand when she spoke English. That's not inappropriate; however, it was her story that was intended to really make the emotional heart of the play beat; and in the pivotal scene towards the end, I found myself working to understand the words and missing the passion that was easily accessible when her Chinese lines were subtitled for the audience. And the final scene with the English teacher and the disgraced Chinese official was also a bit hard to follow. So perhaps the promise of the story didn't fully realize by the end. It was a very long first act, and I found myself thinking that it was the kind of play/story that would have been better tightened up and without the intermission.
Some shows, plays in particular, that fall victim to shortened runs, seem to clearly have failed in marketing or properly understanding who their audience would/should be. This doesn't seem to be the case with "Chinglish." It got some very good reviews, it's a comedy (that always helps) and it has a fairly easy-to-explain premise. True, it was missing a big-name star; a handicap for new plays, for sure. I think that when a theater-goer has to make a choice, it's hard for them to take that risk on the show that is the most unfamiliar. That's where discounted tickets come in; and making time to see at least one extra show on a trip to NYC (or on a local weekend). My theater season would have been sorely lacking had I missed this show.